Decades after independence, many African countries are increasingly troubled by the ongoing influence of their former colonial power.
BAMAKO, Mali — Many French guests came through the guesthouse where El Bachir Thiam worked as a security guard, a small oasis of greenery in busy Bamako, the capital of the West African country of Mali. They were friendly, usually, and he liked them.
But after he had welcomed them in, shown them to their rooms and reassured them that Bamako was safe, not the hotbed of terrorist activity it might seem from outside, he went back to his phone, where his activist WhatsApp groups were focused on one thing. Getting the French — their businesses, diplomats and thousands of troops — out of Mali.
Over the past few years there has been a sharp rise in criticism of France across its former colonies in Africa, rooted in a feeling that colonialist practices and paternalistic attitudes never really ended, and propelled by a tide of social media posts, radio shows, demonstrations and conversations on the street.
In Senegal, young people attending protests last year accused the president of being a puppet of the French president, Emmanuel Macron, who is currently vying for a second term. They smashed the windows of French gas stations and set fire to French supermarkets.
In Burkina Faso, as a coup d’état unfolded in January, tailors tore up French flags and pieced the tricolors back together horizontally to make Russian ones.
In Niger last November, after protesters shouting “Down with France!” tried to block a French military convoy, the soldiers opened fire. They killed two people, the Nigerien government said.
Nearly half of the countries in Africa were at one time French colonies or protectorates. Six decades after most of them gained independence, young people like Mr. Thiam — born long after the colonial French departed — are driving this uprising, tapping into a wealth of online information that older generations, often less educated and literate, never had access to, and trying to use it to promote change. And their elders are paying attention.
“There’s a new awakening in sub-Saharan Africa that the world should know about,” said El Hadj Djitteye, a Malian analyst who recently founded a think tank, the Timbuktu Center for Strategic Studies on the Sahel. “If a foreign minister makes a speech today, there’s a group of young analysts that can look at it and say this paragraph is paternalist, that one is aggressive, this isn’t diplomacy.”
Though the tide of information they consume and share sometimes veers into misinformation, including unfounded rumors about France working with jihadists or stealing gold, much of the criticism in countries with ties to France is aimed at the perceived arrogance of the former colonial master. There have always been critiques of France, particularly in more educated, urban circles in West Africa, but now that almost everyone either owns a cellphone or knows somebody who does, these ideas have spread.
In Mali, where for almost a decade French soldiers who initially came at the invitation of the Malian government have tried and failed to stop the spread of armed Islamist groups, France stands accused of disrespecting Malians not just by activists like Mr. Thiam, but by the country’s highest officials, including the prime minister.
“They want to humiliate us,” said Prime Minister Choguel Maiga in a recent speech which drifted into unfounded conspiracy theory. This kind of rhetoric has helped the military junta that seized power in 2020 retain huge popular support. “We’re not a people that submits.”
This is a stark turnaround from a decade ago. When jihadists took over its northern cities in 2012, Mali appealed to France for military help. And when French soldiers arrived, Malians greeted them as liberating heroes.
Now they are effectively being chased from the country. They are blamed for sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States, or ECOWAS, aimed at trying to get the junta to commit to handing over power — France is assumed to be the group’s puppet master.
The French are blamed for their failure to stop an insurgency that metastasized and spilled over Mali’s borders, destabilizing a vast stretch of arid territory known as the Sahel — even though troops from Mali have also been fighting the insurgents and now stand accused of massacring hundreds of people together with their new partners, Russian mercenaries. The French are blamed, too, for their support of former rebel groups from the north considered by many in Mali’s powerful south to be no different than the jihadists.
The deteriorating security situation was one of the main things Mr. Thiam posted about on social media during his night shifts at the guesthouse. He built up a following of more than 35,000 friends and followers on Facebook at one point.
But he wasn’t just an online warrior: He co-founded an activist group, On A Tout Compris — French for “We’ve Got it All Figured Out” — which organized demonstrations outside the French embassy and targeted French-owned businesses like the petroleum company Total. Soon, he found he was having to duck out of his activist meetings early to get to work on time. Then he left the guesthouse job for full time activism.
His favorite trick was to post videos of himself burning the French flag on Facebook — something that eventually got him banned from the social network, he said. (Facebook said that the burning of flags does not violate their policies, but he could have been banned for another reason). He said he posted pictures of dead French soldiers, labeling them “other terrorists,” just for shock value.
“We knew that was mean, but it was part of our battle plan,” he said.
French soldiers are now packing up in their bases, preparing to leave, while their leaders focus on their relationships with other, friendlier countries like Niger and Ivory Coast, where this month they will hold a training session with local troops, as they have done for years.
For years after African nations got independence, France maintained a web of political and business ties with its former colonies, often in effect propping up corrupt governments or dictators for its own benefit, a system widely known as Françafrique.
When Mr. Macron became president, it initially seemed that things would change. He promised to declassify secret files related to the assassination of Thomas Sankara, Burkina Faso’s revolutionary leader, killed in a putsch in which many suspect France played a role. He asked Rwanda for forgiveness over France’s role in the genocide.
“I am from a generation that doesn’t come to tell Africans what to do,” he told students in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso’s capital, in 2017.
But this rang hollow in January 2020 when he summoned five African leaders to a summit, partly to disavow rising anti-French sentiment in their countries. To many of their citizens back home, Mr. Macron came across as insufferably arrogant.
And in Mali — often, of late, the harbinger for the region, whether in terms of coups or destabilizing Islamist groups — people felt that the arrogance just kept coming — notably, in French ministers’ condemnations of the military junta that overthrew the president, France’s erstwhile ally, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
France and Its Colonial Past in Africa
A troubling history. Decades after independence, relations between several African countries and France, a former colonial ruler, remain complex. Here are key things to know:
The relationship between the two countries broke down fast.
After France’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, called the junta “illegitimate” and “out of control” in January, its ambassador in Bamako was instructed to leave.
On a recent afternoon at the embassy, the ambassador’s spacious office was hushed, the only sign of him a photograph atop his office chair, where he jokingly propped it on his way out.
Many Malians still bristle at that “illegitimate” label: of course, they say, the junta was not elected. But many feel they have been failed by democracy as France conceives it, and that the junta speaks for them.
“Stop thinking we are inferior,” said Pierre Togo, a former soldier, addressing France as he nursed a mango juice at a Bamako bar on a recent evening. “France is plotting, playing games, and Africans understand that now.”
Across town, at a busy roundabout where vendors sold Malian flags, Lassina Keita, a mechanic, wiped oil-stained hands on his shirt, to which was clipped the source of all his information, a small yellow radio. “It’s better to say thank you, and let them go,” he said of the French.
But while these sentiments are common in the capital, some Malians from the north and center, where the insurgency is raging, see things differently.
In a quiet suburb of Bamako, Ami Walet Idrissa and Bintou Walet Abdou, both 22, chatted in Ami’s house, its rough cinder block walls heating in the sun. They reminisced about their lives back home in Timbuktu, which was taken by Islamist militants, after arms and men flooded into the country in the wake of Libya’s descent into chaos.
“France helped Mali a lot,” said Bintou.
“They’re the ones who chased the jihadists out,” Ami said.
When jihadists took over Timbuktu in 2012, Ami was 13. Her parents had fled, but she stayed behind with her siblings. One day, walking home after bathing in the river, armed men stopped Ami and her brother. Males and females were forbidden from walking together, they said — siblings or not. They whipped them both, she said.
Both women worried about what would happen if the French left, but they never said so in public, even when people equated the French with jihadists, as they often did. Their opinions could invite trouble in Bamako.
Were France’s harshest critics living in areas threatened by extremists or abusive military forces, rather than safely in Bamako, things could be different.
At the leafy guesthouse, one of Mr. Thiam’s former co-workers was amused to hear what his old colleague was up to.
“Send him to Dogon country, let him hear a bit of gunfire,” he said with a smile, referring to an area often attacked by the armed groups that France fought. “He’ll run back yelling ‘Vive la France!’”